skip to content

Department of History and Philosophy of Science


buchdahl.jpgThe Department was saddened to learn of the death of Gerd Buchdahl, one of the principal architects of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge and our first Head of Department.

The following notice will appear in the September issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, the journal which he founded and which is still edited from the Department.

Gerd Buchdahl (1914–2001): Founding Editor

Gerd Buchdahl, historian of philosophy, internationally distinguished Kant scholar, one of the architects of history and philosophy of science as an independent discipline, and founder (with Larry Laudan) of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, died aged 86 on 17th May 2001.

Gerd was born of liberal Jewish parents on 12th August 1914 in Mainz. There he studied at the Realgymnasium until March 1933, a couple of months after Hitler came to power.1 Later that year he departed for England, where he trained and worked as an engineer. In 1940 he was one of the two thousand 'dangerous' aliens deported on HMT (Hired Military Transport) Dunera. Some were survivors of the Arandora Star, sunk with enormous loss of life the week before, and refugees from fascism were crowded in with professed fascists. On board ship, he was one of the authors of the 'constitution', inscribed on a toilet roll, for self-government of the internees. Kept under appalling conditions and surviving a torpedo attack, they reached Australia after fifty-seven days, there to be placed in an internment camp until 1942. It was under these harsh circumstances that Gerd found his vocation, first as a 'table captain' leading the ship's philosophy discussions based on a copy of C. E. M. Joad's Guide to Philosophy that he had smuggled aboard, then teaching philosophy in the 'university' that he helped to set up in the camp.2 On release he combined employment as a civil engineer with the study of philosophy at Melbourne University, graduating with first-class honours in 1946. In the following year Gerd joined, and shortly became Head of, the Department of General Science set up to introduce the sciences to arts students. There, inspired by Ernst Mach's The Science of Mechanics, he adopted a historical approach in his teaching. Over the next decade, as Gerd conceived history and philosophy of science as a discipline, he developed his department from a one-man, one-room show into a substantial concern with five teaching staff and its own building with a well-stocked library. The department's name was changed first to 'History and Methods of Science' (Gerd had proposed 'Method', but conceded 'Methods' to the Professor of Psychology, who shrewdly insisted that each science has its own method), and then to 'History and Philosophy of Science'. In 1954–5 he was an exchange lecturer in philosophy of science at Oxford and visited Cambridge, where teaching of the history and philosophy of science had recently been introduced into the second year of the Natural Sciences Tripos. Oxford invited him to stay on, but he was dissuaded by the lack of organisation and facilities. In 1957 he was appointed Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at Cambridge following the resignation of N. R. Hanson.3 From 1959 to 1974 Gerd had primary responsibility for the development of the history and philosophy of science in Cambridge, first as Secretary of the Committee on History and Philosophy of Science (responsible for teaching and examination, and for the administration of the Whipple Museum of scientific instruments) and then, with the achievement of official departmental status in 1972, as the first Head of Department. In 1964 he was one of the founding fellows of Darwin College and in 1966 was promoted to a Readership in History and Philosophy of Science. Gerd's retirement in 1981 saw little diminution in his energies. For many years he continued as a much admired lecturer and supervisor; he published and spoke extensively as Britain's leading Kant scholar; and he zoomed alarmingly round Cambridge on his motorbike.

At the beginning of his time in Cambridge Gerd ran into considerable opposition: from philosophers suspicious of his historical approach, from directors of studies in natural sciences doubtful of the benefits of his subject, from a university administration resistant to demands for posts and space. Undaunted, indeed stimulated, by the obstacles Gerd contrived to transform the history and philosophy of science at Cambridge: from a team of two to a teaching and research staff of ten or so; from a library for which a bare forty-three books had been purchased in the five years before his appointment to the first-ever comprehensive collection of the discipline; from an unstaffed repository of scientific instruments to a properly curated and displayed museum; from a handful of research students to a hive of scholarly pursuits; in sum, into a, if not the, world centre in the history and philosophy of science.

Gerd remarked of the great philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: 'These authors strike an immensely personal note. Each, more often than not, addresses himself to and argues against some central contention or other of his predecessors. It is like a living dialogue, a dynamic process of continuous debate – not at all some dead textbook formulation.'4 Just such a living engagement with the classic works of the history of philosophy enlivened Gerd's own teaching and his major works, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science of 1969 and Kant and the Dynamics of Reason of 1992. In his marvellous close readings Gerd achieved the near-impossible feat of combining historical sensitivity to the foreignness of past viewpoints with the capacity to relate the canonical texts to current problems in the philosophy of science. Gerd's dialectic was of the Socratic sort, constantly opening up new possibilities and new difficulties, rarely venturing dogmatic conclusions. It is this that made his teaching and conversation so inspiring, if, on occasion, baffling to literal-minded natural scientists. I well remember a lecture of his (in 1964, I think) at which he appeared late and distraught – tearing his hair, he announced, 'Scrap your notes from last time! Everything I told you about regulative principles in Kant was wrong. I shall start again.' Oddly enough, thirty years later when writing lectures on Kant's philosophy of the sciences, I found that, unlike almost everything else I had heard as an undergraduate, I could recall Gerd's lectures almost verbatim. Gerd was, above all, a dedicated teacher, an inspiration to generations of research students ever happy to embark on philosophical conversations regardless of circumstances, as my co-editor Marina Frasca-Spada well remembers from their meetings in Sainsbury's.

Writing in 1962 Gerd declared that 'a critical approach to the history of science will do well to avail itself of the results of philosophical scholarship; and on the other side, a study of philosophical concepts, particularly those appertaining to the field of science, must needs see their development in the concrete contexts of historical reality.'5 Throughout Gerd's writing and teaching he insisted on the mutual dependence of the two fields, emphasising the value of philosophical awareness in the posing of historical questions, the need to take proper account of the historical links between metaphysics and the sciences, and the indispensability for an understanding of current philosophical questions of an appreciation of their ancestries. It was precisely this concern to integrate the history of science with the philosophy of science that in 1970 led Gerd, together with Larry Laudan, to found Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. As they announced in the 'Editors' Note' of the first volume: 'Although there are now a number of specialist journals in the history of science and the philosophy of science, Studies has been founded in the belief that there is a place for a complementary approach which emphasises the value of pursuing the two sides of the discipline in close liaison with one another.'6 The first four volumes, published by Macmillan, they co-edited. Then in 1975 the journal went to Pergamon Press and Mary Hesse took over for a couple of years as co-editor. In 1977 I became Gerd's advisory editor, and in 1982 his co-editor. In 1988 Gerd resigned his editorship, but continued as an active senior consultant to the journal. From the outset Gerd showed extraordinary energy in establishing Studies as a journal in which 'authors would be not only permitted, but explicitly encouraged to discuss philosophical issues by reference to their historical context, and historical issues in terms of the philosophical framework in which they had occurred.'7 As I discovered, somewhat to my surprise given Gerd's often abstracted and unworldly demeanour, he was remarkably efficient in the business and administrative aspects of editorship. Further, he was extraordinarily generous and patient, happy to enter into philosophical and historical correspondence with younger authors, and personally distressed whenever a rejection letter had to be written: I once found in the files a letter thanking Gerd for the kindest rejection letter the author had ever received. By the time Gerd resigned his editorship his dream of making Studies the leading journal in the field had come true. His has been a hard act to follow.

Marina Frasca-Spada and I are deeply saddened by the loss of a personal friend.

N. J.


1 Much of my information about Gerd's life and career comes from Woolhouse (1988), which carries a listing of his publications. Some points derive from Buchdahl (1950; 1989a, b) and from conversations with him. I am very grateful to Anna Mayer, who is working on the history of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge, for expert guidance.

2 On the voyage of the Dunera, see Pearl (1983), an account for which Gerd was interviewed.

3 On the early history of the teaching of history and philosophy of science in Cambridge see Mayer (2000), Bennett (1977) and Hoskin (1990).

4 Buchdahl (1969), p. 3.

5 Buchdahl (1962), p. 62.

6 Buchdahl and Laudan (1970), p. 1.

7 Buchdahl (1987), p. 4.


  • Anon. (2001) 'Obituary. Gerd Buchdahl: Studying the Relations Between Science and Philosophy', The Times, 24th May.
  • Bennett, J. A. (1997) 'Museums and the Establishment of the History of Science at Oxford and Cambridge', British Journal for the History of Science 30, 29–46.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1950) 'History and Methods of Science', University of Melbourne Gazette 6, 71–72.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1962) 'History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge', History of Science 1, 62–66.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1969) Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science: The Classical Origins Descartes to Kant (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
  • Buchdahl, G. (1987) 'Philosophy of Science: Its Historical Roots', Epistemologia 10, 39–56.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1989a) 'Twenty-five Years of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge', The Cambridge Review 10, 167–171.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1989b) 'History and Philosophy of Science: Some Anecdotal Memories', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 20, 5–8.
  • Buchdahl, G. (1992) Kant and the Dynamics of Reason: Essays on the Structure of Kant's Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
  • Buchdahl, G. and Laudan, L. (1970) 'Editors' Note', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 1, 1–2.
  • Hoskin, M. A. (1990) 'History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge', Cambridge (The Magazine of the Cambridge Society) 26, 46–50.
  • Mayer, A.-K. (2000) 'Setting up a Discipline: Conflicting Agendas of the Cambridge History of Science Committee, 1936–1950', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 31A, 665–689.
  • Pearl, C. (1983) The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake (London: Angus & Robertson).
  • Woolhouse, R. S. (1988) 'Gerd Buchdahl: Biographical and Bibliographical', in R. S. Woolhouse (ed.), Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Essays in Honour of Gerd Buchdahl (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic), pp. 1–7.